The Students We Wish Were Taking a Gap Year

08/23/2016 11:58 am ET

 Soon, President Barack Obama’s daughter Malia will begin a “gap year,” an opportunity to do something meaningful between high school and college, before heading to Harvard in the fall of 2017.  Countless other fortunate high school graduates will do the same, taking a year to volunteer, work, or travel.

A year off before college is a great idea for many reasons, but unfortunately, many students who should wait a year will not do so, and in heading straight to college, they run the risk of leaving sooner than they planned. No matter what families have been led to believe, college is a mostly unsupervised environment requiring students to manage their lives independently.  For those unprepared for this, going directly from high school to college can be disastrous both emotionally and financially. Studies show that between 35 and 45 percent of college freshmen don’t return for their sophomore year. I’ve worked in higher education for almost three decades, and it’s an annual heartbreak to see these unprepared students crash before the first semester ends.

For the first time in their lives, many residential college students have no one waking them up, getting them out the door, reminding them to bring their things to class. They may not even be required to go to class.  And if they don’t go, there is no principal’s office to call home and report the absence.  There’s just the likelihood of quickly getting behind in their work, fear of failure, uncertainty about how to get help, and then a mid-term grade or grades that foretell academic disaster. 

To address the needs of these students, I propose not a gap year, but what I call a “half-step year.” That is, the student continues to live at home, attending school as a commuter, with parents, rather than the college, providing a safety net. Who should take a “half-step year”? 

  • Students with significant emotional or mental health challenges, like severe anxiety or mood disorders. College is stressful for all students.  Those who need a hefty support network—therapist, psychiatrist, parents who are alert to signs of distress—are unlikely to find that at most institutions. 
  • Students with significant learning differences. For those on the Autism Spectrum or with substantial executive function challenges, the stress of transition and adjusting to a new environment takes up considerable cognitive and emotional bandwidth, leaving little to navigate academic obligations.
  • Students with substance abuse histories, even if they have been successful in receiving treatment. Again—college is a mostly unsupervised environment.  The availability of alcohol and other drugs is well-documented.  Even wellness or substance-free housing will not prevent an 18 year-old struggling with addiction from finding substances on campus that will lead to relapse. 
  • Students with gaming and other online addictions. Similarly, a student who has already demonstrated struggles to get offline and tend to his or her responsibilities at home is not going to magically become responsible just because they’re now in college.  If anything, that student will be even less likely to stop gaming to get to class or study. 
  • Students with eating disorders or other significant health challenges that require careful monitoring. Until a student can demonstrate that she or he knows how to manage their health needs and is committed to doing so, a college setting is not going to be a safe place for them. 

All of these students have the potential to successfully live away from home and attend college.  But too many of them are not ready a mere twelve weeks after graduating from the highly structured environment of high school.  A half-step year also means parents must be partners in letting go and in requiring their child demonstrate command of the activities of independent living (getting up for work or class, completing assignments, following up with a professor or advisor, buying books and supplies, refilling prescriptions). Succeeding at a community college (or a job, or both), helps build confidence in students that they can function on their own, and in parents that the sizable investment they are about to make is worthwhile.

I have seen too many families devastated by a student’s failure in that first semester—the disappointment, dismay and crushing blow to everyone’s self-esteem.  I have seen too many families reluctant to withdraw a student who is clearly in trouble because of the potential loss of a scholarship or the use of a loan to pay tuition. 

Don’t look to colleges or universities to tell you this.  Their admissions staff has a job (building the applicant pool which then allows them to increase selectivity) that is sometimes at odds with the best interests of prospective students.  But the admissions staff cannot be blamed if families fail to be fully forthcoming about the challenges their student brings to campus. As a result of neither side being completely honest with each other, staff members are left to try to respond to students in crisis who were not ready to enroll.

For many students and their families, now is the time to make a careful assessment, have some honest conversations, and consider an alternative to either an immediate start to college or to a full-of-adventure gap year. A half-step year of mastering independence could make a crucial difference for the next step of being successful at the residential college of the student’s dreams.

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